Yellowhammers: Returning from a great break in Ireland, where we never got wet in 16 days (is this some sort of record?), I’m restarting the blog with these gorgeous Yellowhammers, doing what they classically do- singing from the top of a low bush, typically a Gorse bush as you can see. We heard the brightly coloured male singing its rhythmic song- “a little bit of bread and no cheese”, while the camouflaged female sat nearby in a small tree (see photo). They were unusually numerous on an RSPB site in Dumfries, having sadly declined in many areas, as scrubland is replaced by intensive farming or development. Conditions: Cloud and sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 20, Min 11 C.
The decline in Kestrels in many parts of the Uk is worrying but on our recent trip to the North East they were visible in their previous numbers. Such a delight, they are not usually persecuted as they take small rats, mice and voles, which are regarded by farmers as pests. In medieval falconry they were flown by knaves as they were
regarded as lower status than Peregrines etc. They can hover in a strong winds, keeping their heads completely still, like this one by St Mary’s lighthouse. Conditions: Another dull, wet day. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5c.
Goldeneye are beautiful, diving ducks that overwinter in the UK. You may see them at Old Moor; we recently watched them on the Northumberland sea and at Druridge Bay, a bit distant so I have drawn a male to add to the photo’s
. Males have iridescent heads- studies suggest iridescence is related to testosterone levels, which may explain why heads look blacker in winter. The white cheek patch helps identification. Goldeneye first nested in Scotland in 1970– nest-boxes in trees near lakes has increased the small number of breeding to 200 pairs. Conditions: Cold with some sun. Temperature: Max 4 Min -2C.
Watching waders like these Ringed Plover, Sanderling and Dunlin, along the winter shore is such a treat. Not only do they have different length bills so that they don’t compete for food, they have many sensitive nerve endings at the end of their bills, allowing them to detect the pressure-waves from prey as they rapidly ‘stitch’ the mud and sand, in a search for small invertebrates (see photo’s)- a bit like echo location in bats. Conditions: Sunny spells replaced by dull cloud and drizzle. Temperature: Max 9- Min 5C.
Oyster Catchers are our most easily seen and identified waders– 45% of the European population overwinters on our coasts, and it was great to see them feeding, and hear their evocative peeping calls, in Northumberland yesterday. Their strong, long bills enable them to probe deep into sand, and to break open Mussels and Cockles. Increasingly breeding inland, they also feast on worms in summer. Conditions: Glorious sun and strong westerly breezes. Temperature: Max 7- Min 0C.
Reed Bunting- about the size of a sparrow but longer and more slender, this lovely bird was in some numbers at Old Moor RSPB reserve today. Feeding on seeds and insects, and traditionally a wetland bird, the Reed Bunting is now spreading out into farmland, where it particularly enjoys the seed of Oilseed Rape, it can even turn up on garden feeders through winter. Like some other species, the Reed Bunting will feign injury to draw predators away from their nests. Conditions: Sunny and still Temperature: Max 7- Min 3C.
Kittiwakes, the beautiful gull named after the haunting sound of its call, are our most numerous breeding gulls but their decline is shocking: the 2014 survey puts populations at 28% of their numbers in 1986 and this year’s figures are worse. This medium-sized gull, with black legs, yellow bill and wings described as looking as though they have been ‘dipped in ink’ spends nearly half its year out at sea but nests on sea-cliffs and recently, as in Newcastle-Gateshead, on buildings and bridges that resemble cliffs. Like Puffins, also in decline, it feeds on shoals of sand eels and small fish, particularly over-fished and reducing off
our Eastern coasts. Conditions: Clear and sunny. Temperature: Max 6- Min 1C.